Last Updated on December 9, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1469
Act I, Scene 3
The setting shifts to a room in Polonius’s house. Laertes is preparing to leave for France and is wishing his beautiful sister, Ophelia, farewell. He brings up Ophelia’s budding romance with Prince Hamlet and cautions her against pursuing the relationship further. Laertes reminds Ophelia that, as a prince, Hamlet’s will is not his own. While Hamlet may casually pursue a noblewoman like Ophelia, his marriage is a matter for the state. Given this reality, Laertes tells Ophelia that she must act cautiously and protect her virtue. Ophelia agrees to take this advice to heart, though she points out that Laertes has not exactly followed his own advice. Just then, Polonius enters and chastises Laertes for dawdling while the ship to France awaits. He then proceeds to impart several pieces of advice to Laertes. Polonius advises Laertes to think things through before acting, to remain faithful to his old friends while being wary of new friends, to listen to everyone’s opinions but keep his judgements to himself, to take care with his appearance, to neither borrow nor lend money, and, most importantly, to remain true to himself. Laertes departs after reminding Ophelia to remember his advice. Polonius asks Ophelia what Laertes told her, and she replies that he was giving her advice about Prince Hamlet. When questioned about the nature of her relationship with Hamlet, Ophelia admits that he has confessed his love for her. Agreeing with Laertes, Polonius tells his daughter not to take Hamlet’s words of love seriously and orders her to keep her distance. Ophelia dutifully agrees.
Act I, Scene 4
Later that night, Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus stand outside the castle, waiting for the ghost to reappear. The men hear the sounds of trumpets and cannonfire, which Hamlet explains are from Claudius’s late-night carousing. Hamlet claims that this is a Danish custom that should be breached rather than observed, as it makes Denmark look foolish to other nations. Hamlet argues that just as the tiniest drop of evil can cast doubt on an otherwise-good character, Denmark’s many accomplishments are overshadowed by the perception that its nobles are drunkards. Suddenly, the ghost appears. Hamlet, unsure whether the ghost is friendly or malevolent, asks it to explain why it has come, and the ghost beckons him away from Marcellus and Horatio. They urge Hamlet not to follow it for fear that it may harm him in some way. Hamlet decides to follow the ghost, claiming that he does not value his life and that the ghost cannot harm his immortal soul. After Hamlet and the ghost leave, Marcellus and Horatio decide to follow him.
Act I, Scene 5
When Hamlet and the ghost are alone, the ghost finally speaks. Claiming to be the spirit of Hamlet’s father, the ghost says that he wants Hamlet to “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” The old king’s ghost reveals that he was not killed by a snake bite (as was reported) but by his brother, Claudius. Hamlet, his suspicions about Claudius confirmed, is appalled. The old king’s ghost tells Hamlet how Claudius secretly poured poison in his ear while he slept in the garden, stealing his life, his crown, and his wife. Killed before he had the chance to seek heavenly forgiveness, the old king is now being punished in the afterlife for his unresolved mortal sins. The ghost urges Hamlet to save Denmark from Claudius’s wickedness and corruption, though he requests that Hamlet spare the queen from his revenge, leaving her to the mercy of heaven and her own conscience. The ghost disappears as the new day dawns, and Hamlet vows to remember and obey the ghost’s orders.
Marcellus and Horatio catch up with Hamlet and ask him what happened, but Hamlet refuses to reveal what he learned. Hamlet makes Horatio and Marcellus promise to never reveal the events that transpired this night. They swear on Hamlet’s sword, promising to keep these events a secret as the ghost’s voice commands “Swear” from below their feet. Hamlet warns them that he may begin acting like a madman and makes them promise that, no matter how strangely he behaves, they will never give even an ambiguous hint as to his motives. They swear on his sword two more times, with the unseen ghost calling out “Swear” each time. Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus head back inside, and Hamlet laments his burdensome obligation to set things right.
These three scenes conclude act 1 and set up the question that will drive the rest of the play’s conflict: what will Hamlet do now that he knows about his father’s murder? Scene 3 introduces the audience to Polonius’s intimate family life—a sharp contrast to Hamlet’s own fractured family. While currents of suspicion and dislike run through Hamlet’s interactions with Gertrude and Claudius, a fairly close relationship is suggested between Polonius and his children. Polonius takes care to give Laertes fatherly—albeit clichéd—advice, illustrating the sort of affectionate father-son relationship that Hamlet has been deprived of. Both Laertes and Polonius urge Ophelia to step back from Hamlet’s advances, warning her that a casual romance will not hurt Hamlet but could ruin her reputation. While the advice is pragmatic, their counsel is belittling: “Affection? Pooh! You speak like a green girl, / Unsifted in such perilous circumstance.” Laertes in particular seems to undermine his message of chastity with graphic sexual metaphors. For her part, Ophelia is clever enough to recognize Laertes’s hypocrisy in advising her to remain chaste and protect her reputation:
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whilst, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede.
This cheeky response suggests that Ophelia is more intelligent than her brother and father give her credit for. Though Polonius and Laertes’s behavior toward Ophelia is undoubtedly problematic by modern standards, it is an accurate reflection of Elizabethan gender roles. A noblewoman’s chastity and reputation would have been of the utmost importance to her family, as she would not be able to make a good marriage without these things intact. In the end, Ophelia dutifully dutifully agrees to obey her brother and father, indicating an essentially mellow and passive personality.
The theme of appearance versus reality reappears as Hamlet criticizes Claudius’s penchant for revelry, which he claims has made Denmark an international laughingstock and corrupted its otherwise noble reputation. Soon after, the reappearance of the ghost serves as a confirmation that something is indeed “rotten in the state of Denmark.” When Horatio and Marcellus express concern at Hamlet’s going off alone with the ghost, Hamlet replies that he does not care about his life, echoing his earlier statements about his desire to commit suicide. Despite his lack of fear, Hamlet wonders whether the ghost is a “spirit of health or goblin damned," the first of many questions about the spiritual world and the immortal soul that Hamlet will ponder throughout the play.
In scene 5, the ghost of Hamlet’s father finally reveals the reason for his presence and, urging Hamlet to “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder,” sets the primary plot of the play into motion. That Claudius killed his brother with poison only reinforces Hamlet’s beliefs that Claudius himself is a toxic, corrupting influence on both Queen Gertrude and Denmark itself.
When Hamlet meets with Horatio and Marcellus after his encounter with the ghost, he warns them that he may begin to put on an “antic disposition,” indicating that his plan to feign madness is already forming. This invites the audience to consider a central question of the play: does there come a point at which Hamlet is no longer acting and has truly gone mad? If so, when does this switch occur? Some scholars point to this very scene as the beginning of Hamlet’s descent into madness, noting his agitated and frenzied behavior toward Marcellus and Horatio after his meeting with the ghost. Strangely, Hamlet refers to the ghost below their feet as “truepenny” and “old mole,” and his erratic behavior leads Horatio to comment, “These are but wild and whirling words, my lord.”
Hamlet is ultimately a sensitive and introspective individual—a thinker rather than a doer. He himself suggests that it is not in his nature to seek a bloody revenge: “O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!” As the play progresses and the line between appearance and reality becomes more blurred, it will be left up to the audience to determine whether Hamlet is merely acting the part or whether the burden of revenge has truly driven Hamlet mad.
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